Hunting & Eastern Han Tomb Reliefs (25-220 CE)


A review of Chasing the Beyond: Depictions of Hunting in Eastern Han Dynasty Tomb Reliefs (25-220 CE) from Shaanxi and Shanxi, by Leslie Wallace.

The Eastern Han (25-220 CE) is a curiously understudied period in the history of early China. Even though it has left behind many more textual and material sources than the preceding Warring States, Qin, and Western Han periods (ca. fifth- to first-century BCE), it has not yet attracted the scholarly attention that has long been lavished on these earlier, allegedly more foundational periods of early Chinese history. Recent scholarship on early medieval China, on the other hand, has tended to focus upon texts and personalities of the Six Dynasties (220-589 CE) after the end of the Eastern Han. Straddling between these two well-established bodies of scholarship, the Eastern Han has often emerged less as a distinctive era, with a historical identity and logic all of its own, than a long transitional period that had witnessed a transformation of the Middle Kingdom from the unified bureaucratic empires of the Qin and Western Han (221 BCE – 9 CE) to the fragmentary multiethnic and aristocratic polities of the Six Dynasties.

In this context, Leslie Wallace’s dissertation, a meticulous and engaging study of Eastern Han tomb reliefs from the Northwestern region (modern-day Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces), is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on the history of the Eastern Han in particular and early China at large. Tomb reliefs from the Eastern Han have become a major focal point for early China scholars in recent years; it is certainly one of the most developed areas in the otherwise still fledgling scholarship on the history of the Eastern Han. Specifically, much of the scholarly debate has centered on the famous Wu Liang Shrine (ca. 150-170 CE) in the Northeast (modern-day Shandong Province). After the pioneering work by Wu Hung (The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), we have seen no fewer than two major edited volumes of essays devoted to this particular set of tomb reliefs within the last decade (Cary Y. Liu, Michael Nylan, Anthony Barbieri-Low, eds., Recarving China’s Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the “Wu Liang Shrines,” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005; Cary Y. Liu, et al, eds., Rethinking Recarving: Ideals, Practices, and Problems of the “Wu Family Shrines” and Han China, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Beyond the Wu Liang Shrine, we have also seen a broader study of Eastern Han tomb reliefs in the excellent monograph by Martin J. Powers, Art and Political Expression in Early China (New Haven: Yale University, 1992). Much of this scholarship is focused on the tomb reliefs found in the Northeast, due in no measure to the apparent abundance and richness of the materials from this particular region. In many cases, there is a clear tendency, or perhaps a tacit presumption, to extrapolate the findings from the Northeast tomb reliefs to those found in other regions of the Eastern Han. In other words, the Northeast has acquired a normative status in the study of Eastern Han tomb reliefs.

Wallace’s dissertation builds on this existing body of scholarship, but also makes a laudatory departure from it by focusing exclusively on the tomb reliefs found in the Northwest, specifically the modern-day provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. For Wallace, the starting point is fairly simple: one cannot contextualize tomb reliefs in the Northwest by way of those in the Northeast or any other region. One must resist the temptation to fall back on established interpretations developed from the materials in the Northeast, but must attend to the regional context of the Northwest, historical or otherwise, for a proper understanding of its local tomb reliefs. The result is an engaging study that offers not only convincing interpretations of tomb reliefs in the Northwest, but also manages to complicate, in a positive and constructive way, many aspects of the history of the Eastern Han, including its mortuary traditions and its profoundly ambivalent attitude towards foreigners. The dissertation relates its many findings across four chapters, in addition to the Introduction and Conclusion chapters. In what follows, I will summarize the arguments of each chapter.

The Introduction chapter begins with an account of the history of tomb reliefs in the Northwest, which were all made within a single century between the year 90 CE and 175 CE, in a frontier region of the Eastern Han. This is then followed by a discussion of what little earlier scholarship there is on these Northwestern tomb reliefs. Here, we encounter the first articulation of a theme that Wallace will return to throughout the dissertation: contrary to earlier scholarship which sees these tomb reliefs simply as passive pictorial representations of the life and/or aspirations of the deceased, she contends that at least in the Northwest, the tomb reliefs were burial objects with their own intended function and efficacy in facilitating the safe passage of the soul of the deceased through the treacherous borderland of the afterlife to various immortal paradises. The Introduction chapter also anticipates another major argument in the dissertation, namely the impact of the region’s proximity to nomadic territory, especially that of the Xiongnu, on the specific pictorial program of the tomb reliefs. The Introduction chapter then ends with a summary of the four chapters of the dissertation.

Chapter 1 is divided into two halves. In the first half, Wallace discusses the history of the excavations of these Northwestern tombs as well as the structures of the tombs themselves. The first discovery of these decorated Eastern Han tombs in the Northwest was made in the early Republican period in 1919, but the first systematic, scientific excavations would have to wait until the 1950s. Since then, an increasing number of sites have been discovered and excavated, and finally, beginning in the 1990s, they began to attract due scholarly attention. This is followed by a detailed discussion of the structure of the tombs, as well as the placement of the reliefs within the tombs, which are usually on the entranceways of the tombs or doorways between tomb chambers. Wallace also notes the prevalence of motifs associated with the idea of immortality, such as the Daoist deity Queen Mother of the West, in all of the Northwestern tomb reliefs. The second half of the chapter outlines the history of the region, namely parts of modern-day Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces, based on information from the standard histories, tomb inscriptions, and the tomb reliefs themselves. What these sources reveal, according to Wallace, is a region colonized first by the Qin and then the Han empires in the two centuries before the Common Era, with a highly mixed Han and non-Han population whose lives were dominated by state military service.

Chapter 2 focuses on hunting imagery in the tomb reliefs not just in the Northwest but throughout Eastern Han China. Wallace identifies four regional clusters of tomb reliefs where images of the hunt did appear, namely the Northeast, Northwest, Central Plains, and Southwest. She then proceeds to survey the predominant hunt motifs in each region, and convincingly demonstrates that in the Northwest, there is a particular emphasis on the figure of the mounted archer and a unique juxtaposition of hunting imagery with motifs of immortality. The latter half of the chapter offers a critical review of earlier scholarship, mostly by scholars from mainland China in recent decades, on the prevalence of hunting imagery in Northwestern tomb reliefs. In almost all cases, Wallace remains unconvinced of their interpretation of these images as simply passive representations of the supposed lifestyle or as marker of the aristocratic status of the deceased. Instead, building on Jessica Rawson’s earlier works on the functions of burial objects, Wallace argues that we should understand these images instead as active, functional representations that depict and facilitate the safe passage of the tomb occupants to various immortal paradises.

Chapter 3 turns to the intriguing question of why the juxtaposition of hunting images with motifs of immortality is found only in the Northwest. The discussion begins with a detailed study of a paradigmatic example of this juxtaposition in a set of reliefs on a doorway in a tomb found in Qingjian, Shaanxi. Each element in this set of reliefs is given a sustained discussion, from the deity Queen Mother of the West, immortals worshipping a mounded object, and mountain censers, to immortals frolicking with animals among clouds and mountains. While the theme of immortality clearly emerges in these various images, a more surprising discovery is made concerning the images of the mountains and clouds that frame the doorway. Drawing on various Han and Six Dynasties texts, such as the Huainanzi, Liezi, Shanhaijing, and Baopuzi, Wallace argues that while mountains do sometimes represent the divine abodes of various immortal deities, they are also imagined to be a treacherous and malignant borderland, a liminal zone with wild, dangerous beasts as its inhabitants, that prohibits the safe passage of the soul of the deceased to the realm of the immortals. This dual lore of the mountains, Wallace argues, is deliberately incorporated into the images of immortals frolicking with animals among clouds and mountains in tomb reliefs throughout the Northwest region. Building on this point, Wallace further argues that the images of the hunt, especially archery, given its long-standing association with ideas of exorcism and ancestral sacrifices in the tradition, represent the martial assistance granted to the deceased in pacifying precisely this same treacherous mountainous realm for the safe passage of his or her soul to the immortal paradises. In short, this juxtaposition of images of the hunt and motifs of immortality speaks to a certain regional conception of afterlife in the Northwest that sees the deceased as having to cross over to the immortal paradise through a treacherous borderland that requires aggressive pacification, in part if not entirely, made possible by the images of the hunt depicted on the tomb reliefs themselves.

Chapter 4 turns to the figure of the mounted archer which is prevalent in tomb reliefs of the Northwest. Drawing on a wealth of textual materials from the Warring States and the Han period, Wallace convincingly argues that by the time of the Eastern Han, the figure of the mounted archer had displaced the charioteer from the earlier centuries as the ideal warrior capable of overcoming the most hostile enemies. However, at the same time, despite this positive valorization of the mounted archer, it also came to be strongly associated with perhaps the greatest enemy of the Eastern Han, namely the Xiongnu who had long been a most hostile nomadic neighbor along the Northwestern frontier. To complicate the picture further, Wallace also demonstrates, through both textual sources and tomb reliefs from various regions of the Eastern Han, that the Xiongnu themselves were imagined by the people of the Eastern Han as human-animal hybrid creatures, not unlike the fantastical beasts that confronted the soul of the deceased in his or her journey to the immortal paradise, occupying a desolate territory beyond the Northwestern border which was also not unlike the treacherous realm that one must cross in order to arrive at the immortal paradise. In short, there was a purposeful conflation, in the imagination of the Eastern Han people, of the barbaric world of the Xiongnu and the treacherous borderland of the afterlife.

The ubiquitous depiction of the mounted archers in the Northwest tomb reliefs, therefore, registers a profoundly ambivalent attitude towards the Xiongnu. On one hand, for all of their supposedly uncivilized ways, they represented for the Eastern Han people the barbaric, desolate realm of the afterlife, but at the same time, their esteemed martial prowess, as mounted archers especially, represented the necessary skills that were necessary in order to overcome the hostile elements in this borderland before arriving at the immortal paradise. In this sense, the Xiongnu were a necessary enemy for the Eastern Han; one had to become a Xiongnu in order to defeat them. The Xiongnu were both the hostile beasts and helpful hunters on one’s journey to the immortal paradise. The Conclusion chapter which follows concludes with a summary of the arguments of the preceding four chapters.

This dissertation is undoubtedly the most comprehensive treatment of Eastern Han tomb reliefs of the Northwestern region in English language to date. By focusing on tomb reliefs from this understudied region, Wallace has made a tremendous contribution to the richness of this growing body of scholarship on tombs reliefs of the Eastern Han. Moreover, her many convincing arguments about these Northwestern tomb reliefs also demonstrate the importance in attending to regional contexts in interpreting tomb reliefs of the Eastern Han. The findings in any one particular region can rarely be extrapolated fruitfully to other regions, given their diverse regional histories and cultures, as this dissertation has admirably demonstrated. More broadly speaking, this dissertation has also made a significant contribution to the study of the history of the Eastern Han at large, with its many insightful arguments on changing mortuary beliefs and practices as well as the complex attitude towards foreigners in this period. All in all, this dissertation represents significant advances in our understanding not only of tomb reliefs in the Northwest but also the still relatively poorly understood history of the Eastern Han.

Vincent S. Leung
History Department
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

Eastern Han tomb reliefs
Hou Han shu 後漢書
Hanshu 漢書
Shiji 史記
Chuci 楚辭

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2010. 176 pp. Primary advisor: Katheryn Linduff.


Image: Photograph by Leslie Wallace.

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